Japan from the inside out

Archive for March, 2008

Matsuri da! (76): Putting a happy face on Sado

Posted by ampontan on Monday, March 31, 2008

IF ANY PLACE IN JAPAN is star-crossed, it just might be Sado Island. The country’s sixth largest island, located 22 miles from Niigata, Sado became the Japanese equivalent of Siberia during the Heian Period (794-1192). It was there the rulers in the Kyoto capital exiled political troublemakers, as well as poets, Buddhist monks, and even one Tenno (emperor).

The poet Hozumi no Asomioyu was the first to receive this punishment, finding himself on the slow boat to the island in 722 after criticizing the Tenno.

Rank did not have its privileges, however. One member of the Imperial house wound up on the short end of the Sado stick himself: Juntoku Tenno was dispatched to Sado after helping his father, the nominally retired Go-Toba Tenno, in an attempt to overthrow the Kamakura Shogunate during the Jokyu Disturbance of 1221. He lived there for 21 years, writing poetry criticism and the Kimpisho, a work on court ceremonial procedures. (His father, also a poetry lover, was sent to a different island.)

The last exile of a troublemaker to Sado occurred in 1700, almost 1,000 years after the first. But that was a century after gold had been discovered, which brought a different class of undesirables to the territory. The discovery did not create a gold rush for prospectors and prostitutes; the gold here was the property of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and the people doing the digging and sifting were convicted criminals and the homeless. They were ill-treated drones in de facto slavery, and being sent to toil in the Shogun’s mines was another form of permanent exile.

When people weren’t being brought to Sado against their will, they were being taken away by force. Soga Hitomi was 19 years old when she and her mother were abducted by North Korean agents and taken to that country for a life of involuntary exile and teaching in the Japanese language and cultural education program it had set up for spies. That tells you all you need to know about the country’s desperate living conditions: the Japanese just have to overpay for underqualified foreigners to work as teaching assistants in their school system. Pyeongyang had to kidnap them.

It was in North Korea that Ms. Soga met and married Charles Jenkins, a deserter from the American army. They and their two children were eventually allowed to leave, and Mr. Jenkins finished serving out his time by spending a month in the brig. Now they’re all back in Sado—home for Soga Hitomi, exile of a more amenable sort for Mr. Jenkins.

This unpleasant history notwithstanding, the islanders enjoy themselves as much as any Japanese during their traditional festivals. One was held earlier this year at the Kobiei Shinto shrine. Called the Ta’asobi, or Playing in the Rice Paddy, it might be more accurate to describe it as the annual reenactment of a comic sketch based on the hardships of agricultural work. Many similar festivals are held throughout Japan before planting season arrives.

In the Sado City event, a mock rice paddy is set up in front of the shrine’s main hall. A small group of men mime the tasks carried out during the year, starting with the preparation of the paddy and ending with the planting of rice.

Their labors are complicated by the appearance of several other men impersonating moles and magpies, whose roles call for them to literally act their part and disrupt the men at work. They go so far as to paint the faces of the hapless farmers black, as you can see from the photo, and tie them to trees with ropes.

The festival is offered as a form of supplication for a good harvest in the fall. The zanier the moles and magpies behave, the louder the spectators cheer, and the better that year’s crop will be. The event originated about 160 years ago—life had become easier without the threat of exile or working in the mines—but was discontinued in the mid-1920s. The local residents (Sadomites?) restored it about 25 years ago.

Considering the history of the island, the best part of the festival might be that after the actors are untied from the trees, everyone is free to go home.

Posted in Festivals | Tagged: , , , | Leave a Comment »

Were Koreans oppressors in the war, or its victims?

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, March 30, 2008

IF YOU BELIEVE the newspaper narratives, the Japanese nation denies or chooses to ignore its behavior during the first half of the 20th century, while the Koreans were innocent victims of that behavior.

That might be the price one pays for choosing to swallow the mass media product, but then sometimes the antidote to that particular poison can be found in a surprising place—such as a Korean newspaper!

Here’s an example: Earlier this month, the Choson Ilbo of South Korea published an article titled Were Koreans Oppressors in the War, or its Victims? The piece gives readers a glimpse of a reality more complicated than that usually presented in the popular press.

It is in fact a review of a book recently released in South Korea called A Metahistory of Korean-Japanese Disputes over Historical Awareness. (It doesn’t seem to be available in Japanese yet.) The newspaper (poorly) translated their own article into Japanese, and I’ve tried to render it into English because I think the information it conveys should be more widely known. Please keep in mind that what you see after the process went from Korean to Japanese to English (and in one excerpt from English to Korean to Japanese to English) is probably not what people higher up the linguistic chain got.

The Choson Ilbo chopped up the review into three separate pieces for some reason, so I’ve put them all into one place. I’m not sure how well-written the original was, but the situation is what it is. Hereafter, the voice is that of the reviewer, Yu Seok-je.


A 19-year-old youth born in the colony of Korea volunteered to serve in the Japanese military. He rose to the rank of first lieutenant in the army and became a member of the kamikaze special attack squadron. Before leaving on his mission, he made a sound recording of his will for family members back home. The disc on which that will was recorded was discovered decades later. The voice cutting through the noise on an old record was by no means filled with sadness. It was the powerful voice of a first lieutenant in the Japanese army who pledged his loyalty to “His Majesty the Emperor”, and wished for the health of his parents. After his death in battle, he was enshrined with 26,000 other Koreans in the Yasukuni Shrine.

There was a surprising response to a television documentary broadcast three years ago that contained this information. Previously, one constant in Korean society was that the mention of the word Japan, with its negative image, would create a frenzied reaction. This time, however, there was no reaction at all.

Why was that? It was because these people were victims who, it was claimed, died an unjust death, while at the same time, serving as officers in the Japanese military and shouting Tenno Heika, Banzai! (Long live the Emperor!) In the decades-long debate about the faction friendly to Japan (during the colonial/merger period), dominated by the Korean-Japanese problem, there were no means available to offer an explanation about them.
The editors of this book are Kan-Nichi Rentai 21 (Korea-Japan Solidarity 21), a group consisting of Korean and Japanese intellectuals launched in 2004 to seek a new Korean-Japanese relationship appropriate for the 21st century. They are searching for a means to achieve solidarity by examining themselves and achieving a more mature viewpoint that transcends the antagonistic relationship that has arisen between the two countries. In brief, they now want to leave behind the intolerant nationalism with which one party views the other for a closer study of history. That’s why the authors of this book have chosen to step back from knee-jerk nationalism itself and develop a new viewpoint of their own through self-reflection.
The book So Far from the Bamboo Grove (In Japanese, Yoko’s Story) touched off a dispute about historical awareness last year. (Note: This is a semi-autobiographical novel by Yoko Kawashima Watkins describing a Japanese family’s escape from northern Korea at the end of World War II. The father was serving there as a government official during the colonial/merger period.) Commenting on the book, UC San Diego literature professor Lisa Yoneyama said, “Yoko’s Story closely resembles that of A Little Princess (a 1905 children’s novel by Frances Hodgson Burnett). Both have the backdrop of a colonialist history that is not American and leave the impression that the United States is not connected with the history of colonial rule. That’s why mainstream American society appreciated Yoko’s Story as a book depicting the suffering of war. In this book, the historical background of Japanese colonial rule in Korea is wiped clean. This is related to the lack of historical awareness in the United States of their own colonial domination of others.”

Also commenting on Yoko’s Story was Professor Shin Hyon-gi of Yonsei University: “The dispute regarding this book began drawing nationalistic battle lines over the war in memory. Moreover, there was a sense of outrage that the Japanese, in their memories, considered themselves the victims. If you think about it carefully, however, (you’ll wonder) is it true that all Koreans were victims and all Japanese were always the victimizers? Talking about the experience of cruel persecution and ordeals is one way to achieve a collective identity. A clear line of distinction is drawn between the “good Korea” and the others, who are the villains. But crushing the memory of the Japanese does not mean that the memory of Koreans has won.”

Thus the book extends the horizon of thought into “troubling territory” that had been viewed as taboo in both countries. The victims in the victimized country have raised their voices to censure the victimizers in the oppressor country. But neither the victims in the oppressor country nor the oppressors in the victimized country are visible in this construct. No clear distinction can be made between victimization and victimhood, and the construct is both compound and multilayered. When the nationalism of both countries is in conflict, there is no place for one to stand in the rapids.

The Japanese wives have been forgotten by nearly everyone. Professor Kano Mikiyo of Keiwa College asserts that the problems of the past are by no means resolved. In the latter half of the 1930s, the policy of forming a unified whole of Japan and the colony of Korea (in Japanese, the naisen ittai policy) led to the strong encouragement of intermarriage. There were 5,458 marriages between Koreans and Japanese from the years 1938 to 1943, and of these 3,964, or 73%, were between Korean men and Japanese women. Most Japanese women stayed in Korea (after the war), and according to a 1975 survey, 73% of the remaining 956 women were in the economic classification of poverty or extreme poverty.

Professor Kano said, “The backdrop to the tragedy of these Japanese wives is the tacit acceptance of their fate in the patriarchal systems of both countries. In Japanese society, Korean men, who were ethnically weaker, were stronger both socially and culturally in gender terms under the patriarchy. Fixing up these men with the women of the stronger (Japanese) group exacerbated their self-esteem as males. Did this really achieve a balance by promoting equality?”

Considerations of the “troublesome territory” continue. Professor Lee Yon-hun of Seoul National University was critical of the explanation written in a South Korean history textbook that “Japanese imperialism stole 40% of Korean territory”.

In regard to the argument that the Class A war criminals should be separated from the rest of those venerated in Yasukuni Shrine, Prof. Takahashi Tetsuya of the University of Tokyo worries this would be a “dangerous scenario”. “After the Class A war criminals were separated, the war dead who were involved in Japanese invasions overseas before 1928, and who had no connection with the invasions after 1928, would remain enshrined. Once the Class A war criminals were removed, if the Yasukuni Shrine were to become operated by the state and visits by the Tenno (Emperor) were possible, it could be used as a device for supporting Japanese military activity.”

The critical weakness of this book is that the opinions and assertions of the 18 Korean and Japanese authors, and the logic behind those assertions, are not unified. One possible interpretation is that the lowest common denominator for the authors is simply that they have removed themselves from the line of sight of nationalism, with which many people have been permeated. As the book itself states, if that is the case, as heated disputes with a multiplicity of viewpoints rage with no one offering a conclusion or a proper answer, its significance can only be discovered by considering it as one attempt to identify their common ground.


I’m not sure why Mr. Yu thinks the lack of a unified voice is a drawback; it is inevitable there will be a wide range of viewpoints in an issue such as this, and I think it is worth drawing attention to them.

The group Korea–Japan Solidarity 21 recently published a textbook examining the war that was written by Japanese, Korean, and Chinese historians. Nothing by that group is available on Japanese, however.

It is interesting to note that a textbook is apparently in use in South Korea with the claim that “Japanese imperialism stole 40% of Korean territory”. Who knew that such a textbook existed? Yet everyone knows about a Japanese textbook that glides over the same period in history–everyone except students in Japanese schools, because only a miniscule micropercentage of them even use it.

It is unfortunate that all the Japanese cited in the review are academic leftists; Prof. Yoneyama in particular seems to have permanently pitched a tent out in left field. Here is her profile on her university’s site, in which she tells us as much about her cat as she does her “partner”. The professor is rather upset at the success of So Far from the Bamboo Grove, as you can tell from this article in the English-language version of The Hankyoreh, a South Korean newspaper. Here is a plot summary of A Little Princess; I haven’t read either book, but to think the two are comparable seems like something dreamt up by a college literature professor with an axe to grind and time on her hands. She’s offended that Ms. Watkins wrote the book, and she’s offended that Americans like it.

Extend the logic of her argument and one would expect her to be attacking Gone with the Wind for its portrayal of slaveholders on a plantation during the American Civil War.

It is worthwhile for people outside Japan to realize that viewpoints such as those of Prof. Takahashi exist, even though the scenario he postulates here is as likely to occur nowadays as a cow jumping over the moon. His Japanese language website describes him as an enthusiastic participant in the Peace Boat voyages to South Korea and Pyeongyang. (Members of their cruises also met several times with Yasser Arafat.)

The Peace Boat project was the brainchild of a group that included Tsujimoto Kiyomi, a member of the lower house of the Diet in the Social Democratic Party (formerly the Socialist Party). She was forced to resign in a financial scandal, and was later reelected through the proportional representation system. She is also suspected of, at minimum, having ties to the Japanese Red Army terrorist group. Others think she funneled them money.

It would be interesting to know if a wider spectrum of Japanese political opinion is represented in Korea-Japan Solidarity 21. There are other currents in contemporary Japanese-Korean relations, after all. For example, former Prime Minister Mori Yoshiro, a conservative/traditionalist, is the chair of the Japan-Korea Parliamentarians’ Union; an assistant executive director of the same group is former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo.

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Posted in Books, History, International relations, Japanese-Korean amity, South Korea, World War II | Tagged: , | 7 Comments »

Requiem for a yokozuna

Posted by ampontan on Friday, March 28, 2008

ARE YOU READY for this?

Japanese professional wrestling promoters Zero 1 Max held wrestling matches at the Yasukuni Shrine (yes, that Yasukuni Shrine) last weekend in an oblational service for the divinities.

The event, dubbed the Yamato Kamisu Strength Festival, was held for a fourth straight year to help bring back the good old days of professional wrestling in Japan. The shrine’s dohyo, or sumo ring, was rearranged to enable the installation of a special wrestling ring for 2,000 spectators. The sumo ring is located near an excellent spot for cherry blossom viewing, so at past events fans have been able to enjoy the refined delights of an o-hanami while cheering the choke holds. This year’s Strength Festival was held before the blooms opened, however. Children of junior high school age and younger were admitted free of charge.

The event was started in 2005 by Hashimoto Shinya, a professional wrestler who died later that year at the age of 40. This year’s card featured seven matches.

Ready for another one?

There is a long tradition of professional wrestlers fighting at Yasukuni Shrine. The most recent occasion before this series was April 23, 1961, when Japanese wrestling legend Rikidozan presided over a card that featured youngsters Giant Baba and Antonio Inoki, who would become stars in their own right. (Inoki also would later form his own political party and win election to a seat in the upper house.) The event attracted 15,000 people.

But the maiden event occurred in March 1921, when American wrestling legend Ad Sentel took on several Japanese judo practitioners from the Kodokan dojo, including Nagata Reijiro, and won all his matches. This story has an interesting background. Sentel took on judo fighter Ito Tokugoro in 1914 and beat him. Ito had publicized himself as a “Japanese judo champion”, so Sentel claimed after his victory that he was the “World Judo Champion” (proving that professional wrestlers haven’t changed much in the past century.) This prompted the embarrassed head of the Kodokan dojo to arrange the matches with Sentel at Yasukuni. The American’s victories popularized what some call “submission wrestling” in Japan.

Holding wrestling matches for the divinities at a Shinto shrine is not as outlandish as it may seem. There is a very long tradition in Japan of festivals with competitive events at Shinto shrines. In addition to sumo, which is closely linked to Shinto, competitions at shrines include archery, tug-of-war, and, according to my reference, even cock-fighting. The idea is that the divinities will favor the more deserving competitor, and the victors in these events will have good fortune in the year ahead.

Ready for one more?

The primary draw this year was the appearance in the ring of the former sumo yokozuna Akebono fighting as one member of a six-man tag team match.

Akebono performing ritual

The term yokozuna is usually translated as grand champion, but it is best understood by describing it as the top classification in the sumo ranking system (which is somewhat similar to martial arts). Only the best of the best are elevated to yokozuna status. (Akebono was just the 64th rikishi to earn that rank.) Those chosen are not just the most successful athletes in the Japanese national sport, they are also expected to exemplify its living spiritual traditions, which are 2,000 years old.

For Akebono to become a professional wrestler, it is as if Michael Jordan decided to take up roller derby.

A decade ago, Akebono, who was born Chad Ha’aheo Rowan in Hawaii, was one of the foremost figures in international sport, in his or any era. Because sumo is followed by few people outside of Japan, and because rikishi compete under specially chosen names, his identity and accomplishments are unfamiliar to many.

Rowan was not merely very good—he absolutely dominated sumo during a career that lasted from 1988 to 2001 and set records in the process. And to scale the sumo summit, he had to leave his home in Hawaii to live in Japan and master a foreign language, the techniques of an unfamiliar sport, and the customs and traditions participation in that sport demands.

Rowan appeared in his first tournament in March 1988. There are six tournaments a year, and just 30 tournaments later, in January 1993, he became sumo’s first non-Japanese yokozuna. It was the fastest rise to this rank in the sport’s history. Further, Akebono was the only rikishi to hold the highest rank for nearly two years. Some have likened this feat to a Japanese who has never seen or played football going to an American university and winning the Heisman Trophy four years later.

Akebono’s career match record was 654 wins and 232 losses. He won 11 tournament championships, ranking him 7th in the modern era at the time. (After Akebono retired, another foreign rikishi, Musashimaru, racked up 12. Today’s fallen superstar, the Mongolian Asashoryu, later broke Akebono’s records for speed of promotion, and won 22 championships to place fourth on the all-time list. But that’s another story.)

His stunning competitive record was not the only reason for Akebono’s popularity among the Japanese. Participation in sumo demands an attitude and approach that is almost aesthetic. Unlike his fellow Hawaiian Konishiki, who whined that racism prevented his promotion to yokozuna, Akebono pleased even the most demanding purists with his demeanor. More than a few Japanese wondered if a non-Japanese would ever be honored with elevation to the top rank, as sumo is a conservative, traditional sport in a country that prizes conservatism in its traditions. But Akebono made history in January 1993.

Forced to retire due to a series of knee injuries, there were a wealth of opportunities to pursue. He could have opened his own training organization, as do many former famous rikishi. He could have parleyed his name and fame into television commercials, as did Konishiki. He could have married a trophy wife, as did Takanohana. Indeed, he could have done all three. He was well paid during his days in the ring, earning US$15,000 a month at his peak, not counting bonuses for tournament victories, and could have made a lot more in any number of ways.

So what did Akebono choose to do after retirement? He became a K-1 fighter.

I’m not sure how well known K-1 is outside of Japan, but in Japan it is an extremely popular fighting sport. Venues with a capacity of 45,000 have been known to sell out for matches in an hour. Conducted in a boxing ring, the sport’s promoters claim it combines the martial arts of karate, Thai kickboxing, tae kwon do, and kung fu. The matches seem to be above board, but all the commentators have a background in professional wrestling. Here is their official website.

But it was not just a case of Akebono deciding to become a K-1 fighter. He was a really bad K-1 fighter. Starting with his debut on New Year’s Eve 2003 against Bob Sapp, a fighter so well known in Japan that the bout was dubbed a dream match, the former rikishi was handed his lunch every time he stepped into the ring. His matches seldom lasted more than a couple of minutes against opponents that were often lightly regarded in K-1 circles.

Then the SmackDown! Xprofessional wrestling show made its way to Japan two years ago. Akebono attended and was invited into the ring by one of the wrestlers, The Big Show. The two shook hands and exchanged pleasantries before Akebono left. But Akebono didn’t leave it there. In a story familiar to anyone who has ever been a 10-year-old boy, there was a report that SmackDown’s announcer “tracked Big Show down backstage and told him word out of Japan was that Akebono wanted to face Show at WrestleMania 21 later that year in Los Angeles.”

Big Show accepted the challenge and the match was arranged. It was a sumo style match, which naturally gave Akebono an advantage. Perhaps the organizers did not want Akebono to flop as badly in professional wrestling as he did in K-1. Another possibility was suggested by wrestling commentator NormanB: “What’s going to happen: Akebono wins, because celebrity pseudo-wrestlers NEVER lose to sports entertainers. Examples: Lawrence Taylor, Jay Leno, David Arquette, Mr. T, Kevin Greene…”

During a weigh-in that must have used cattle scales, Akebono showed up at 504 pounds while the seven-foot-tall Big Show tipped the scales at a mere 493. The Big Show has a sense of humor about his size. He told an interviewer, “We have to take these small commuter planes, and I feel like I’m wearing the plane, not sitting in it.”

The interviewer asked him if professional wrestling was fake, recalling that another wrestler once told him the moves were choreographed but the pain was real. Here’s Big Show’s answer:

I’ve had Undertaker kick me in the nuts so hard in The Garden, I just about passed out on Triple H. The chairs are metal, and your ears will ring for about two days after a good chair shot. That’s the thing that people don’t understand. We put our bodies on the line to tell that emotional story.…I just hope that one day they have a Mac Truck wheel chair so I’ll be able to get around.


Once upon a time, Akebono was the most respected member of a 2,000-year-old tradition, a record holder, and a true pioneer after rising to the top as a foreigner in a world that is one of the most traditional of Japanese endeavors. Yet a little more than a decade later, he was challenging Big Show to a match in WrestleMania 21. The result? Big Show briefly picked up Akebono up off his feet, but after one minute and two seconds, Akebono shoved his opponent out of the ring. He was a victor again, though this time it was probably scripted. And I’m sure the pain was real.

Eight years ago, Akebono appeared in a sumo ritual at Yasukuni at the pinnacle of his professional fame. Last weekend, few even in Japan noticed as he threw his weight around once again to take down his opponents. He said he was nervous at first, but happy to be back.

He seems to have found his niche. He said he wants to continue his career as a professional wrestler as a single instead of being part of a tag team.

If the dramatist and author Rod Serling were still alive, he might call this Requiem for A Yokozuna.

Posted in Foreigners in Japan, Shrines and Temples, Sports, Traditions | 5 Comments »

Matsuri da! (75): Now this is a blast from the past!

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, March 26, 2008

TRADITIONS USUALLY INVOLVE the continuous conduct of activities or events over a period of many years–or in the case of Japan, for centuries.

But sometimes, traditions once discontinued are later brought back to life. That’s exactly what happened last fall when parishioners of the Tsuda Tenman-gu, a Shinto shrine in Himeji, Hyogo, revived the use of a festival float for the first time in 60 years. To commemorate the float’s return, they held a consecration ceremony, or what in Japanese is called a nyukonshiki, literally an “entry of the spirit” ceremony. One part of the rite involved carrying the float around the shrine grounds while vigorously lifting it and chanting Yo-iyasa!

Members of the approximately 340 households in the city’s Shianbashi district had carried a float in the Tsuda shrine festivals for many years, but it was lost right after the end of World War II. They restored the child’s float about 30 years ago, and eventually the children who carried that one in festivals grew up and decided to restore the adult version as well.

As luck would have it, they were given a float that had been used by a shrine in nearby Fukusaki-cho (though reports did not explain why the people in that district no longer needed it). The Shianbashi residents set to work redecorating it, giving the roof a new coat of lacquer and applying a new crest.

Elsewhere, the older generation and those with a special interest might be the only ones to welcome the restoration of a tradition. Younger people, with other things on their mind and other ways to spend their time, might not have paid attention. But that apparently didn’t happen in Himeji. One Mr. Iwasaki, who is now 75, carried the previous version of the float for the last time at the age of 15. He was thrilled to report, “The younger generation was very excited, and the people of the town came together. I’ve never been so happy.”

Good for them. Let’s hope the people of Shianbashi continue to enjoy their float for many years—or centuries—to come.

Posted in Festivals | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Japanese students dumbed down to Western levels

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, March 25, 2008

A GENERATION AGO, Japanese educators were desperate to reform the country’s educational system by incorporating the approach and some of the principles used in American schools. Last week’s report on the results of a survey conducted by the Association of Japanese Geographers seems to indicate they have achieved their objective. Japanese students are now just as ill-informed as any in the West.


The association surveyed the geographical knowledge of 6,150 students in 51 high schools in seven prefectures, and 3,747 university students from 31 institutions nationwide. None of them had specifically studied the subject in school. It was the association’s second such survey; the first was conducted in 2005.

The students took a test in which they were presented with a world map on which 30 countries were identified with numbers. They were asked to provide the names of 10 specified countries.

The country that gave the students the most trouble was Iraq, as only 26% knew its location. They fared only slightly better with Switzerland, which was correctly identified by 38%, and Vietnam, which was known by 39%. The highest recognition score was the one for the United States; 86% of the students could find that country.

One could view the results from the opposite direction, of course, and note that as many as 14% of Japanese students were in the dark about America’s place in the world.

In a way, the low score for Iraq might not be all that surprising. One would hope students were familiar enough with current events–indeed, a highly controversial hot war–to identify that country on a map. But for some Japanese to fail to pay close attention to trouble spots overseas is an old phenomenon. This is exemplified by the expression, taigan no kaji, or a fire on the opposite shore. In other words, why worry–nothing’s burning down in our neighborhood.

It is worthwhile to note the inclusion of Switzerland in the survey and the difficulty students had identifying it. The Japanese have had an idealized view of Switzerland and its scenic beauty for several decades. It was a country many Japanese wanted to visit before vacations in Europe became generally affordable, and now that traveling abroad is no longer a financial hardship, Switzerland has become a popular tourist destination—for older people.

The association’s survey, conducted from last December to February, also contained a similar test for Japanese prefectures (which are the equivalent of states or provinces). The test asked them to name 10 prefectures on a map identified by number.

The prefecture with the lowest recognition rate was Miyazaki, down in Kyushu, whose location was familiar to only 43% of the students. Ehime was correctly identified by only 50% of the students, and Shimane by 52%. A total of 93% knew the location of Tokyo.

And of course that means 7% of the students couldn’t find Japan’s capital and largest city.

The people who wrote the newspaper report were somewhat surprised by the low recognition numbers for Miyazaki. While it is a smaller rural prefecture in the southern part of the country, its governor for the past year, Higashikokubaru Hideo, is a former comedian. His election and activities in office have received extensive coverage in all the media.

The association concluded from these results that it was “necessary to improve education in geography for recognizing information on a map.”

That’s an understandable reaction, and one that people in any country would support, but the recognition numbers for Tokyo might suggest there are other factors involved.

Being familiar with Tokyo’s location really should be unrelated to the amount of geographical education students receive in schools, particularly university students. It’s not possible to watch the news on television—heck, it’s not possible to watch television—without seeing a national weather map several times a day on every station. Tokyo is clearly shown on every one of those maps, and the capital’s weather for the day is always a subject, regardless of where the news is being broadcast.

* * * * * * * * * *

This calls to mind another public opinion survey conducted in 1968 in the United States during the presidential election campaign that year. The Vietnam War was at its height, and Senator Eugene McCarthy, a Democrat from Minnesota, ignited national debate by challenging President Lyndon Johnson in the Democratic primaries on the country’s participation in the conflict and his conduct of it. Another Democrat, Alabama Governor George Wallace, a segregationist, ran as a third party candidate. If anything, the candidates that year were even more familiar than Clinton, Obama, and McCain are now.

A candidate recognition survey that year found that 5% of Americans confused Eugene McCarthy with Joe McCarthy, and George Wallace with Henry Wallace.

Joseph McCarthy, of course, was a Republican senator from Wisconsin who held highly charged public hearings of Communist infiltration at the highest levels of government, and who was later censured by the Senate for playing fast and loose with the facts. Meanwhile, Henry Wallace was vice-president during Franklin Roosevelt’s third term. He was later to run for president on the leftist Progressive Party ticket, and his political positions are the farthest left of anyone elected to the executive branch of national government in the U.S. Historians are still unsure whether he himself was a communist before he rejected Stalin in 1950, or whether he just had a lot of Red friends.

In either event, both were dead in 1968, and it would be very difficult for anyone not in a coma to confuse their views with those of the people who shared their surnames.

Therefore, what the Japanese geographical survey and the American political survey seem to suggest is that the default figures for the people who go through their lives in a perpetual fog is about 5% to 7%.

While Japan would benefit from undoing some of the educational reforms of the 90s, it should be obvious there is a segment of the population in any country that education will never reach.

Posted in Education | 15 Comments »

Zen gardens

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, March 20, 2008

AN E-MAIL MESSAGE just came in from Clare G., with a link to an article at a site called Pro Traveller (“Travel hacks for the savvy traveller”). As you can tell from the title, the site provides information on tourism and travel. The article Clare brought to my attention is titled Top 20 Zen Gardens from Around the World, which you’ll find here. The title is a bit misleading–19 of the gardens are in Japan, with the sole exception located in Portland, Oregon.

Don’t let that stop you from checking out the article, however. The photographs are excellent, there are links to more photos, and there is an informative paragraph describing each of the gardens. The one I want to visit is the moss garden at Saiho-ji in Kyoto. Thanks to Clare for passing along the link!

Posted in Religion, Traditions | 3 Comments »

Koga Takeo (1950-2008)

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, March 19, 2008

SORRY FOR THE LIGHT POSTING lately, but the end of the fiscal year in Japan is a busy one for translators, and other things have been occupying my time this week as well. On Monday afternoon, Koga Takeo, the man who got me to Japan 24 years ago this month (and the nakodo at my wedding three years later) died. His wake was held tonight, and the funeral will be held tomorrow.

Ordinarily Japan is the subject here rather than anything to do with me, but in many ways, to talk about Mr. Koga is to talk about grass-roots Japanese internationalism over the last quarter of the 20th century. To the extent that Japanese society, a former feudal domain that emerged from its self-isolation in a particularly unpleasant way, is now enthusiastically and pleasantly engaged on a variety of levels with the rest of the world, is due to people like Mr. Koga and thousands of people like him in cities and towns throughout the country.

The obituary in the newspaper noted that he was a pioneer (kusawake, literally grass-parter) of international exchange activities in the prefecture, and that doesn’t begin to describe it. The man was a veritable fountain of ideas, and he had the energy to pull most of them off and the persuasiveness to get people to go along with him. He was the founder of three different enterprises (all of which continue to operate today), as well as an instructor in Wado-ryu karate with his own dojo. (He was seventh dan.) It was not unusual for him to spend summer vacations leading a group of students to stay in a remote Thai village that lacked electricity or running water.

On one occasion some years ago, I was part of a group of people bouncing around ideas for solving his latest problem. He was trying to figure out how to find the money to ship two buses to Thailand that he had convinced the local bus company to donate to an orphanage in that country. It took him a while to get them there, but it was just the sort of thing he enjoyed doing.

He had created a scholarship fund for that orphanage, and there were two reasons for his involvement with it. First, he wanted Japanese to become more aware of Asia, and second, he wanted poverty-stricken orphans in rural Thailand to go as far in school as they could. In a country where uneducated country girls often wind up in the sex industry, that is a very big deal.

He convinced his hometown to form sister-city ties with a small town in the United States, and then served as the interpreter during the formal signing ceremony. He also could have interpreted had the ceremony been conducted in French. Ten years ago in Busan, I had a couple of late-night drinks with him in a pojang macha (I think they’re called), a sort of yatai, or street stall, but with the selection of a yakitori restaurant, and his conversational Korean was good enough for all the other customers.

He thought that too often for Japanese, foreigners = Caucasians, so he embarked on a one-man affirmative action program of hiring as English teachers people from such countries as Sri Lanka, the Bahamas, Jamaica, and Zaire whenever he could.

Here is the website of the Terra People Organization, the NPO/NGO he founded. (Only in Japanese, unfortunately) His greeting (which is a bit cosmic) and photo are on this page.

As if that weren’t enough, he was always coming up with ideas for projects on the side. For example, he conceived the idea of filming The Wings of A Man, the story of the only Japanese professional baseball player to die as a kamikaze pilot, and wound up borrowing money from the bank himself to finance the bulk of it.

He also had his eccentric aspects. I have seen him show up for events dressed in an informal men’s kimono, a black cape lined in pink, and a bowler hat. Apparently, he was like that as a young man, too. His first job was as a high school English teacher, and his classroom attire was a t-shirt, shorts, and sandals.

Oh, and did I mention he shaved his head like a monk? He said a priest gave him permission to do so.

The subheading to this site is “Japan from the Inside Out”, and the reason I was allowed that vantage point is because he was the one who opened the door and invited me in. To be sure, participation in Japanese society as an equal (with no special favors) is exactly what I wanted, and that is exactly what he insisted upon from his foreign employees. Still, it is surprising even today that many foreigners who talk about internationalism and their interest in Japan and the Japanese are really just blowing smoke. It is also surprising how many Japanese still give them a pass.

But I continue to learn things from him, even indirectly. At the wake, his son delivered a short eulogy in which he said, “My father was like a storm who always thought what he wanted, said what he wanted, and did what he wanted. Many of you might have been engulfed by that storm and suffered some damage from it, but we ask you to forgive him.”

That’s when I learned that the Japanese can laugh at a funeral, as well as cry.

The final scene in the movie Leo the Last, made in 1970 during a period of global social upheaval, shows the star Marcello Mastroianni lying in a heap in the street with the neighbors after an explosion on his block. One of his neighbors tells him, “You can’t change the world.” Mastroianni replies, no you can’t, but you can change your street.

Koga Takeo didn’t change the world, but he certainly changed a lot more than his street. Over the years, he inspired more young people than I can count to expand their horizons, travel the world, and accomplish things they couldn’t have imagined trying before they met him.

Before going to his wake tonight, my wife and I calculated how much time it would take to drive to the funeral parlor and set out accordingly. So many people came that it caused a traffic jam, and we arrived 25 minutes later than we planned. Goodness knows what it will be like at the funeral tomorrow.

He died 10 days short of his 58th birthday. May he rest in peace.

Update: I don’t know how long the link will last, but here’s a Japanese-language story about his funeral with a photo that appeared in the regional newspaper. Attendance was estimated at about 1,000, and that is no exaggeration. The prefectural governor delivered one of the eulogies, in which he said, “That a person such as him even existed is a marvel.” That about sums it up.

Posted in Education, Foreigners in Japan, International relations, Social trends | 8 Comments »

Matsuri da! (74): Shinto snowball fights

Posted by ampontan on Sunday, March 16, 2008

THE JAPANESE EXPRESSION “Hyotan kara koma ga deru” (Ponies come out of gourds) is used to express the idea that unexpected things often happen. That phrase perfectly explains the one constant among the many different ceremonies the Japanese perform in Shinto festivals.

While the formal services conducted by the priests during the festivals sometimes resemble the rites performed in churches, temples, and mosques around the globe, the sheer variety of the activities in which the parishioners participate staggers the imagination. There is just as likely to be a sake-drinking contest or a struggle between nearly naked men in frigid weather as there is to be a performance of an elegant kagura dance. And sometimes these events seem to resemble the playful hijinks of children looking for a good time.

An example of the latter type of festival is the Otaue Matsuri that was held on the 9th this month by the Kariyasawa Shinmei-gu (Shinto shrine) in Sakakita, Chikuhoku-mura, Nagano. The name of the event translates to the Rice Planting Festival. With its roughly 400-year history, it has become an intangible folk and cultural treasure of the prefecture. The object is to pray for an abundant harvest and the prosperity of one’s descendents.

While it begins as an agriculturally inspired event, it certainly doesn’t end that way. First, the villagers form a circle outdoors in front of the main hall of the shrine. Then, some parishioners dressed in white robes march three times around the circle. The ones at the head of the line carry papier-mâché cows and imitate bovine sounds. That’s not “moo” in Japanese—it more closely resembles the “mo” sound in the word “motor”. They are followed by other parishioners carrying a local agricultural tool called a manga, which is yoked to the cows and tills the soil, while others carry plows.

While it’s unusual for people in religious ceremonies to walk around with models of cows while making animal sounds, it still is clearly in the category of festivals that mime the agricultural process, which are often held throughout Japan. Often, this type of festival involves some sort of humorous interaction between those playing the role of farmer (or farm animal) and the local residents watching the ceremony. This one is no exception.

The exceptional part comes next. The villagers in the circle outside the shrine don’t just stand around and watch—they pelt those walking in the procession with snow. By the time three circuits are completed, the scene resembles the aftermath of a village-wide snowball fight.

The reports or the publicity for the festival available on the Web don’t explain the reason for the snow throwing, but here’s one possibility. As we’ve seen before, the parishioners of one shrine down in Fukuoka every year dress one young man in white, get him drunk as a lord, and then throw mud at him. The more mud that sticks, the story goes, the better that year’s crop will be.

Perhaps the same idea is being applied here, with snow instead of mud. Then again, who could pass up the chance to take a free shot at someone with a snowball?

Would you rather wind up smeared with mud, or covered with snow? I choose the mud, if only because it would be warmer!

Posted in Festivals | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Yasukuni: The movie

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, March 15, 2008

HERE’S A CASE in which some politicians are getting it right, but for all the wrong reasons.

The case involves the incipient controversy over the documentary film Yasukuni, directed by Li Ying and slated for release on 12 April. The film has become controversial because to make it the producers received a 7.5 million yen subsidy (slightly less than $US 73,000) from the Japan Arts Council, an independent administrative body under the jurisdiction of the Agency for Cultural Affairs. One condition for receiving a JAC film subsidy is the absence of intent to deliver a political message. Some members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party think the movie fails to meet that condition, and the party’s Research Commission on Culture and Tradition plans to look into the subsidy system.

The movie, which was 10 years in production, focuses on a master swordsmith who made the so-called Yasukuni sword on the shrine grounds. The Japan Arts Council subsidy comes from a special fund that uses money provided by the Japanese government.

Politicians Object

An association of young LDP members, chaired by lower house representative Inada Tomomi, asked the Agency for Cultural Affairs whether the financial support was appropriate. This prompted the distributor, Argo Pictures, to hold a “special emergency screening” for members of both the ruling and opposition parties, and about 40 showed up to watch.

After the screening, the LDP association met at party headquarters with a different group of young LDP parliamentarians with a long and cumbersome name that doesn’t translate comfortably into English but clearly expresses their aim of encouraging politicians to visit the Yasukuni shrine.

They certainly didn’t like what they saw. Some who attended the meeting objected to the use in the film of statements by two plaintiffs in a suit against former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro for visiting the shrine. The plaintiffs charged in their suit that the prime minister’s visits were unconstitutional.

Further complicating matters is the additional condition that only Japanese films are eligible for subsidies. Upper house MP Nishida Shoji wondered whether the film met that condition because it was a joint production with a Chinese company.

Ms. Inada later commented:

“I don’t feel like critiquing the content of the film because the Constitution guarantees freedom of expression, but I have doubts that a government-affiliated organization should be providing subsidies to a film that deals with the political topic of the Yasukuni Shrine.”

Incidentally, both the Japan Arts Council and the Agency for Cultural Affairs think they followed the proper procedures for the grant, though a spokesman said there were bound to be different views on the film because it was a documentary.

Of course their views can be dismissed out of hand: they’re trying to justify their decision regardless of the merits of the case because they have to justify their existence. If they don’t have any largesse to hand out for film-making, there’s no reason for them to have a job.

The Real Issue

It’s reasonable to assume that Ms. Inada and the other Diet members who object to the funding do so because they disagree with the opinions they saw expressed in the movie. But would they be as anxious to make this an issue if the people making comments on Yasukuni visits in the film were supporters of those visits?

The opinions–whatever they are–shouldn’t make any difference either way. Those who oppose the Yasukuni visits should also be at the front of the line objecting to any government subsidies for the movie. The failure to object on principle lowers the debate to the level of cheerleading for the home team, which misses the point.

It’s a shame that Ms. Inada didn’t take that thought about Constitutionally guaranteed freedom of expression further, because that’s the crux of the matter.

The reason the government isn’t supposed to fund political opinions in a movie—or any medium at all—is because it violates the right of free speech and expression for any taxpayer who disagrees with that opinion.

The right of free speech includes more than the right to be able to stand up in a public place and say the government is wrong.

It also includes the right to keep one’s mouth shut and not express any opinion. Presumably, many of the people who would object to politicians visiting Yasukuni would also object to, say, the Tokyo Metropolitan District’s policy of having school teachers sing or play the national anthem. Some school teachers have been suing the TMD government because they think the policy deprives them of the opportunity to exercise their rights by forcing them to express what they don’t believe in.

Is it wrong to make a person sign a loyalty oath? If so, it’s just as wrong to force taxpayers to subsidize political opinions they dislike. After all, the taxpayers don’t have any choice in whether they have to pay the taxes, from which government agencies receive their funds, and the uses to which those agencies put those funds.

In this case, the government is forcing some people to pay for the expression of a political opinion with which they disagree. There are many things a government has no business doing, and that’s just one of them.

It’s unfortunate, but the most important argument in this debate is the one you’re least likely to hear.

Posted in Films, Government, Shrines and Temples | 28 Comments »

What’s the good word?

Posted by ampontan on Friday, March 14, 2008

THE PRESS IN THE UNITED STATES regularly prints stories about the efforts of the Académie Française to keep an ever-vigilant eye on the incursions of the English language into French and to coin new words that prevent the invader from sullying the native tongue as it is used in official and commercial contexts. Americans seem to enjoy reading those stories because they’ve always had an anything-goes linguistic spirit–when the original colonists crossed the Atlantic during the Elizabethan period, change was running amok in the English language—and because it conforms to Yankee preconceptions about French snobbishness and pretensions to cultural superiority


But officials in Japan are also struggling to keep abreast of changes in the way Japanese people use their language. Unlike the French, however, the focus of attention is not on speech, though some halfhearted efforts have been made in that direction. They’re halfhearted because officials probably realize it’s a losing battle; the Japanese can be just as wild and wooly as the Americans when hot-rodding their spoken language. In addition to adopting any foreign loan word that suits the national fancy, they make their own language jump through some surprising hoops. Here’s an example: some years ago, when the Matsumoto Kiyoshi chain of drug stores became popular, people (particularly young women) shortened the name to Matsukiyo. The abbreviation was then used in the same way as a compound verb: Matsukiyo suru? Are you going to the (Matsumoto Kiyoshi) drug store?

Instead, the Japanese are paying more attention to the written language, which already underwent one significant modification in the immediate postwar period, when the use of some kanji were eliminated and the form of many others was simplified.

Some proposals are floating around to rework the content of the Joyo Kanji, or the kanji in regular use. This list of 1,945 kanji was formulated in 1981 as a de facto standard for the print medium. It defines the readings and form of the kanji, which are used to write all laws and public documents. It is also the standard for language education in school, and newspapers and other media use it as their primary guideline.

The spread of computers and other information technology is causing problems, however. A total of 6,355 kanji are available for use in accordance with the Japanese Industrial Standards for PCs and cell phones. As this equipment is now omnipresent, people are regularly using kanji that are not part of the Joyo kanji list. The National Language Subcommittee in the Agency for Cultural Affairs has issued a report calling for a reevaluation of the Joyo Kanji.

One might think the use of information technology would improve the ability of Japanese to read their own language, but that isn’t the case. The National Institute for the Japanese Language wants to conduct a new study of the reading and writing ability of the Japanese people because they are concerned about international surveys showing declining linguistic proficiency among young people. This would be the first such government study of adult linguistic capabilities since 1955.

The problem as the Institute sees it is the increasing numbers of non-standard kanji being used for personal names. Also, younger people are selecting kanji for names based on their pronunciation and the number of strokes used to write them (certain numbers being auspicious) rather than the intrinsic meaning of the characters themselves.

Compounding the problem, according to the Institute’s director, is the resistance some people have to language surveys, and the difficulty accents, dialects, and honorific language present.

Bringing up the subject of honorific language opens up a different can of worms. The government is mulling the compilation of a manual on the use of honorific language because incorrect use of the forms is growing, despite surveys showing that 96% of the population thinks that proper use is important.

I wonder about the utility of a new manual, however; people have been complaining about the improper use of honorific language for as long as I’ve been in Japan (24 years this month), and I suspect they’ve been complaining about it for centuries. There are also plenty of well-written manuals for the general public easily available in bookstores explaining the principles (in joyo kanji) if people would only read them.

Some of these trends are irreversible, because no country can put the toothpaste back in the linguistic tube. The progress of democracy and the general spirit of egalitarianism in Japan have made it inevitable that honorific language skills would decline. There are fewer situations in daily life that require people to speak in accordance with rules that arose in the context of a vertically structured feudal society.

It might seem counter-intuitive that the increasing use of personal computers and cell phones, which have the capability for the use of a larger number of kanji, is leading to greater ignorance of the written language. But reports indicate that some adults have gotten so used to writing messages on the keyboard that they have forgotten how to write certain kanji by hand and have to ask their children for help.

Considering the use of symbols and abbreviations by the kids for text messages on their cell phones, I wonder if the parents get the answers they’re looking for!

Add to: Facebook | Digg | | Stumbleupon | Reddit | Blinklist | Twitter | Technorati | Yahoo Buzz | Newsvine

Posted in Education, Language | 3 Comments »

Japan’s Okina-mai: The old man’s dance

Posted by ampontan on Monday, March 10, 2008

THERE MUST BE SOMETHING IN THE WATER in Nara. Dancing isn’t usually an old man’s pastime, unless it’s a sedate fox trot at a senior citizen’s home or on board a cruise ship. But the performance of the Okina-mai—literally, the Old Man’s Dance—is almost as old as the hills in that city and is still performed today. It dates from the Nara period in the early 8th century.

fan dancing

As the name of the era suggests, Nara was where the action was in Japan in those days. Could the period have been so vibrant that even the old guys were inspired to trip the light fantastic?

It might have been, but it would be difficult to tell from watching the Okina-mai itself. The dance is thought to be the origin of Noh, the performance of which is rather stately and formalized. Now an important intangible folk and cultural treasure of the nation, the Okina-mai is performed annually every fall at the Narazuhiko Shinto shrine.

The story goes that the song-and-dance was first presented to cheer up the convalescing Kasuga’o, the son of the Imperial prince Shiki-no-miko, who himself was either the seventh or the third son of the Tenji tenno (emperor), depending on whose story you believe.

As you can see from the photo, the dancers wear masks, but that development didn’t occur until about 500 years later on during the Muromachi period. The Japanese have never been shy about playing around with their traditions–even ones that are 500 years old.

Today the Okina-mai is performed outdoors at night on the shrine grounds, with the site illuminated by small bonfires. That might well be another relatively recent development; if the story of the origin is true, it doesn’t seem likely that a convalescent would have been carried outdoors to watch an 8th century musical in the chilly autumn weather.

Then again, Okayama Zen’ichiro of Tenri University published an article in 2004 titled “On (the) Okina-mai Dance of Narazuhiko Jinja Shrine and Dongdong Koryo”. Unfortunately, the text of the article is not on line, but the latter seems to have been a Korean court dance. Is Prof. Okayama suggesting there are similarities? It might not be out of the question—there was a significant migration from the Korean Peninsula to the Nara area in the 8th century.

Be that as it may, you’ll find a brief explanation of the masks used in the dance with a photo here. (“Gigaku” in the text refers to an ancient mask show that was brought to Japan from China by a Korean musician, and let that be a lesson to you about East Asia!) And here’s a YouTube video showing the Okina-mai performed at a different location. (Note: It’s nine minutes long and the narration is in Japanese.)

Kasuga’o eventually recovered, but his brother was the one who went on to make a name for himself—he became the Konin tenno. And their father Prince Shiki made another contribution to Japanese history by composing six of the poems collected in the Man’yoshu, the oldest existing anthology of Japanese poetry. (The most recent datable poem was written in 759.)

Last year’s performance of the Okina-mai attracted about 600 people. That’s a pretty good turnout to watch a 1,300-year-old-dance for old men!

Posted in Arts, History, Traditions | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Working the salt beds at a Shinto shrine

Posted by ampontan on Saturday, March 8, 2008

IF YOU’VE SEEN A SUMO MATCH, you know that the rikishi, or wrestlers, usually spend more time on the preliminary rituals than it takes to decide the winner of the match itself. Those rituals last around four minutes, while many matches are over in a matter of seconds seconds.

Those symbolic rituals are deeply connected to Shinto, the Japanese folk religion, as are many aspects of sumo. Even the referee is dressed as a Shinto priest, and the canopy over the ring, called a yakata, resembles the design of shrine roof.


Apart from the belt-slapping and the staredowns, the most recognizable of those preliminary rituals is the tossing of salt into the ring for purification. Indeed, as an agent for purification, salt is an indispensable part of Shinto.

Where does all that salt come from? Certainly not the supermarket. In fact, at the Mishiodono Shinto shrine in Ise, Mie, they make it themselves in a traditional method using salt taken from a nearby salt bed. The connection between salt and the shrine is so close that the shrine’s name, mishio, is derived from the word shio, or salt, preceded by an honorific. (Note that the shrine calls itself Mishiodono, but the people in the neighborhood call it Mishioden.)

As you can see from the photo, the people at the shrine consider this serious business, and that attitude extends even to their work clothing. The shrine produces all the salt used for its activities during two periods, one in March, which is just now ending, and one in October. Both last for about five days.

The rough salt taken from the bed (in a process that extracts it from seawater) is packed in a three-sided earthen container using a wooden ladle. It is then baked in an earthen oven until it hardens into a block. Each of the sides is about 10 centimeters long, and one block weighs about 800 grams. They make about 20 blocks a day.

The man in photo, named Kitai Noritada (I think), commented, “I put my heart into the work to make good salt”.

Don’t pass up the chance to see these excellent photographs. The first is of the shrine’s salt bed. Notice the torii, or Shinto arch, at the far side. That’s the first time I’ve ever seen one permanently installed anywhere other than at the front entrance to the grounds of a shrine. The second is of the building where they bake the blocks.

Japan is not the only place where salt is used in religious ceremonies, by the way. In the Catholic Church’s traditional Latin mass, the priest mixes salt with holy water, blesses the mixture, and sprinkles it on the altar.

Cleanliness–or purity–is next to godliness, after all!

Posted in Religion, Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Tagged: , , | Leave a Comment »

Sentaku: Getting Japan to choose

Posted by ampontan on Thursday, March 6, 2008

I want to clean up Japan once and for all.
– Sakamoto Ryoma

THERE’S A REASON the activist group Sentaku chose this statement by Sakamoto Ryoma (1834-1867), a citizen-activist himself, as the inspiration for its activities and the name of its organization. Sentaku in Japanese means both to choose and to clean. (They are homonyms.)

Sakamoto lived during a period of yeasty ferment in Japanese history—the old order had succumbed to entropy, and a new order was struggling to be born. When Commodore Perry barged into Tokyo Bay in 1853 with his black ships, Japan was a technologically backward nation whose political structure was the essence of top-down rule. It had been governed for 250 years by the Tokugawa shoguns, hereditary military dictators who strictly enforced the country’s isolation. Local government consisted of about 260 feudal domains, and an oppressive class structure stunted the nation’s growth.

A self-described “potato digger from Tosa” (now Kochi Prefecture) and a masterless samurai, Sakamoto at first wanted to expel the barbarian foreigners, but later came to admire the Western system of representative government and free trade with other nations. He played a key role in the events that led to the downfall of the Tokugawa regime when he and others convinced the last shogun, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, to resign rather than face open rebellion. That finally placed Japan on the road to modernization and interaction with the world.

Sakamoto expressed the motive for his desire to make Japan choose when he write in a letter to his sister that his intent was to “clean up Japan once and for all.”

It’s Yesterday Once More

Today, Japan’s stagnant political system shares some of the characteristics of the terminal stage Shogunate that Sakamoto wished to scrub out. Entropy has had its way with the postwar paradigm of the so-called Iron Triangle: rule by the Liberal Democratic Party (the original grand coalition), the bureaucracy, and business interests working hand in glove.

This system once worked to Japan’s advantage because it allowed the country to pull itself up by its bootstraps in the space of a generation from the havoc wreaked by the war and climb into the ranks of the advanced industrialized nations, creating in the process the world’s second largest economy.

But the arrangements that allowed Japan to remake itself have become an obstacle to its continued progress now that success has been achieved. No iron triangle has the flexibility to permit a country to move swiftly and freely in a modern global economy and to reap the benefits of the unfettered talents of individual citizens acting on their own behalf. Iron becomes encrusted with corrosive layers of vested interests more interested in gaining the political upper hand and feathering their own nest rather than in the national welfare.

The behavior of national government is stifling the emergence of the reforms necessary for the sustaining the country’s prosperity and well-being, and the political class at the national level is more often part of the problem rather than part of the solution. While significant elements within the ruling LDP would follow the path to reform created by its icebreaker, former Prime Minister Koizumi Jun’ichiro, they are stymied by the party’s ties to the bureaucracy and vested interests.

There are reformists among the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, but the party lacks integrity in both senses of the word–it is composed of incompatible elements incapable of action as a cohesive unit without strict top-down party discipline, and its behavior in the Diet as a party seems designed only to create a Nagata-cho sturm-und-drang that would allow it to take power. Had the near-desperate electorate of Japan approved of their behavior, they would have given the party a mandate to form a government years ago.

But as in the latter days of the Tokugawas, a yeasty ferment is at work in today’s Japan that would transform Japan from the ground up.

One problem plaguing Japanese politics and society is that the traditional reliance on top-down control creates a tendency toward what the French call dirigisme, or government control and intervention, especially in business activity or the economy.

There’s no better illustration than the story former Prime Minister Hosokawa Morihiro told about his experience as the governor of Kumamoto Prefecture when he tried to move the location of a bus stop. “For an advanced country,” he explained, “this is embarrassing. To move the stop a few hundred meters, I had to send a delegation to Tokyo. In Japan, you can’t tie your own shoes without official permission.”

Many in Japan fed up with this state of affairs see in the current political stalemate an opportunity to finally generate a wave of reform from regional areas that would engulf and wash the center. The Sentaku group was formed with the same intention as that expressed by Sakamoto Ryoma: to clean up Japan by having it choose.

Sentaku: Choose Clean!

Officially launched on January 20, the group’s full name roughly translates to The People’s Federation for Cleaning (Choosing) Japan by the Regions and Individual Citizens.

One of the group’s founding members and its representative is Kitagawa Masayasu, who understands local Japanese politics from the inside out. A former governor of Mie Prefecture who retired voluntarily from politics after serving two terms, he is now a Waseda University professor and head of the Waseda University Political Platform Research Institute.

This is not a spur-of-the-moment commitment by Mr. Kitagawa—he has been involved with promoting bottom-up government in Japan for some years. In a speech earlier this decade, he declared:

“The excessive concentration of government and business organizations in Tokyo has resulted in a serious decline in the health of the regions. Those local governments with the intent to create reform will work together to change our social systems from the local level. Rather than fearing mistakes, it is more appropriate for us to move forward with a positive attitude and correct any mistakes. Fair competition among regional governments will surely spur our communities to engage in the reform of society.”

He is aware of the magnitude of his task. In an interview conducted a few years ago, he noted:

With local politics, it’s bad enough that the media doesn’t cover the chief executives, but they don’t even cover the prefectural assemblies. That’s both the national media and the local media.

At the Tokyo press conference held to unveil the group in January, Mr. Kitagawa explained that Sentaku was an organization for promoting true political reform for the next lower house election, expected sometime later this year. Considering Mr. Kitagawa’s long commitment to local reform and the ideas of the people he has brought on board, it seems likely that the organization’s efforts will continue after the election.

Sentaku’s parent organization is the Citizen’s Council to Create a New Japan, whose membership consists of leading figures in the private sector. That group has focused its efforts on having political parties and groups throughout the nation formulate specific policy platforms and present them to the public to offer them a choice. These goals are congruent with Mr. Kitagawa’s current efforts at the Waseda institute he heads.

At the inaugural press conference, Mr. Kitagawa seemed to be channeling Sakamoto Ryoma when he said:

“Today’s Diet is incapable of conducting debate that seeks a choice from the citizens and a systemic policy. Both the regions and the citizens still view the central government as their lord and master. We will provide a platform for encouraging serious debate among the parties and politicians.”

Specifically, Sentaku’s goals are the following:

  • Reform citizen awareness, including the Japanese approach to living and working
  • Achieve devolution to break free from (the ties of) the bureaucracy and central government authority and to achieve responsible political leadership
  • Promote citizen debate focusing on policy that is based on regions, areas, and individual citizens, and rework the concept of the state. Cast aside the postwar democracy that leaves (policy decisions) to the politicians. Make the parties create and present specific platforms.

Mr. Kitagawa stressed that the group has no plans to endorse candidates. “We’re not a party. We’re offering a venue for debate.” He also noted Sentaku was not necessarily opposed to the idea of a grand coalition of the type discussed late last year by Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo and DPJ President Ozawa Ichiro.

Addressing Sentaku’s agenda for the immediate future, he said:

“We should have each political party present their platforms about major issues on which no agreement has been reached, and hold a general election for choosing a policy-based government.”

He also stated during the press conference:

“We are aware that this is an extremely important year that will determine Japan’s future. Yet, looking at current conditions in the government, the ruling and opposition parties, and the Diet, we are forced to say that they are far removed from the citizens’ expectations…Our past group has promoted the verification and evaluation of the platforms of the political parties, but the situation today is that those activities are insufficient. The role of Sentaku will be to seek the parties to fulfill their responsibility to explain by formulating policies and actively expressing our opinions from the citizens’ perspective in the process of creating platforms.”

The politician turned professor is not leading a solitary charge. The roster, background, and views of other founding members of the group offer an intriguing glimpse of the yeasty ferment at work at the subnational level in Japan and the diversity of the country’s political and social thought. Here are profiles of some of the members.

Matsuzawa Shigefumi

Mr. Matsuzawa is in his second term as the governor of Kanagawa Prefecture (where the city of Yokohama is located). He is a graduate of the Matsushita Institute of Government and Management, an academy for training a new generation of politicians with a long-term vision for the nation’s future. It was established in 1979 by Matsushita Konosuke, the founder of consumer electronics giant Matsushita Electric Industrial, when he became distressed by the direction of Japanese politics a generation ago.

A former member of the small Progressive Party (formed by the members of a slightly larger group who chose not to merge with the LDP), he became the youngest prefectural assembly member in Kanagawa history. Mr. Matsuzawa later joined the opposition DPJ and won election to the Diet, and was quickly enlisted into the party’s shadow cabinet. A proponent of Constitutional reform and a resolute stance against the North Korean abduction of Japanese citizens, he ran against Kan Naoto for the party leadership, but lost. He left the DPJ in 2003 and won election as governor later that year. His political hero is former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Mr. Matsuzawa describes his vision for Sentaku:

“The perpetual crises generated by the two major parties are not the way to save Japan. Our objective is to have the national government implement true reform in their platforms. We will pressure the political parties to create real platforms and ask the citizens to make a choice. If devolution continues, we can smash the centralized authority of the bureaucracy and create a dynamic Japan.”

Yamada Keiji

The Governor of the Kyoto Metropolitan District, Mr. Yamada has chaired a committee in the National Governors’ Conference focusing on the devolution of governmental authority.

Furukawa Yasushi

When elected governor of Saga Prefecture in 2003, he became the youngest governor in the country. Mr. Furukawa initially entered governmental service when he joined the former Ministry of Home Affairs, now the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications. He has extensive experience in working with local governments to implement reorganization and promote local development. He was asked to consider running for governor of other prefectures, including Nagano Prefecture, where he was once assigned, but returned to serve in his home prefecture of Saga.

Higashikokubaru Hideo

The bien pensant pundits of Japan are quick to dismiss Mr. Higashikokubaru (on the left in the photo) because of his previous career as a comedian and the boorish, roughhouse behavior of his younger days. A former protégé of comedian, film director, and television personality Beat Takeshi, known internationally by his original name of Kitano Takeshi, the man once known as Sonomanma Higashi was arrested in 1986 when he got carried away with himself during a visit with his boss and a few other cohorts to the offices of a weekly magazine to complain about its coverage of Mr. Kitano.

After this and several other unflattering incidents, Mr. Higashikokubaru literally decided to clean up his act. He suspended public performances, started practicing Zen, and was admitted to Waseda University in 2000. By all accounts, his academic record was superb, and he graduated in 2004 at the age of 46. The subject of his graduation thesis was election campaigns. When the former governor of Miyazaki Prefecture, Ando Tadahiro, was arrested for bribery, Mr. Higashikokubaru saw his chance and returned to his childhood home to run for office, winning handily against an LDP-backed opponent.

His ability to handle a crisis was immediately tested by an outbreak of avian flu in his largely rural prefecture, which accounts for the production of 25% of the chickens consumed in Japan. He also assumed office at a time when scandals involving slush funds were coming to light throughout the country and the Kyushu region in particular. Mr. Higashikokubaru instructed prefectural employees to come clean about any potential problems. He suceeded beyond his expectations: through his efforts the prefecture recovered roughly 91.5 million yen (about $US 883,500) generated by illegal slush funds, exceeding the 76 million yen he had targeted. The money included cash returned by the disgraced former Governor Ando and the family of the late former Governor Matsukata Suketaka

While his celebrity is undoubtedly a factor, his constituents are thrilled by his no-frills style and his tireless promotion of the products of his prefecture; at one point last year his disapproval rating was under 2%. He has become famous nationally for using a phrase in the local dialect, “Miyazaki wo dogenkasen to ikan” (We must do something about Miyazaki.)

Mr. Higashikokubaru’s current efforts mesh perfectly with the objectives of Sentaku. While campaigning for election, the governor repeatedly emphasized that his goal was to achieve political reform in the prefecture and spread those reforms nationwide. Explaining the rationale for joining the group, he said:

“I can’t see any national vision or strategy. Isn’t it time to question the approach of the country as a whole, when politics is so stagnant and confused? This (Sentaku) is not a third force between the ruling and opposition parties. Both the opposition and the government parties should offer policies easily understood by the citizens, and allow them to be the standard by which a government is chosen. I want to speak to the national government from a regional perspective.”

He also said, “The reason (the group was formed) was dissatisfaction and distrust in the national government. It will not be possible (to put) regional finances (on a solid footing) without a debate on the consumption tax. The citizens are seeking a real forum for debate.”

Some have suggested that one flaw in Sentaku’s original membership roster was their failure to include a person associated with the media. This suggestion overlooks that Mr. Higashikokubaru is a media magnet who attracts publicity with little effort. (See here, here, and here for previous Ampontan articles about the governor.)

Ikeda Morio

Mr. Ikeda is the former president and chairman of Shiseido, the major cosmetics company, and is now a senior advisor to the firm. He was a member of the so-called Education Rebuilding Council, a group established by Prime Minister Abe Shinzo for the reform of Japanese education, which was since disbanded by his successor Mr. Fukuda.

Mogi Yuzaburo

Mr. Mogi is the chairman of the food products company Kikkoman. A graduate of the Columbia School of Business in 1961, he thus became the first Japanese to be awarded an MBA. Kikkoman enjoyed extraordinary success under his leadership. Mr. Mogi believes in training people with an international perspective for the era of globalization, and thinks the key to success for Japanese enterprises abroad is to form ties with local communities and rely on local personnel instead of sending Japanese from the home office.

Koga Nobuaki

Mr. Koga is the primary representative of organized labor. He is the former President of the Japanese Electrical, Electronic and Information Union and is now an official with Rengo, the Japanese Trade Union Confederation

Sasaki Takeshi

The former president of the University of Tokyo, Mr. Sasaki’s area of specialization is the history of Western political thought. He tried to reform the structure of the university (known in Japan for its conservative approach) but was defeated for reelection. He was awarded the Japanese Medal of Honor (Medal with Purple Ribbon) for his service.

Sentaku has succeeded in attracting more reform-minded local politicians to its cause since its inauguration six weeks ago. These include:

Terata Sukeshiro

The popular governor of Akita Prefecture, he initially ran at the request of DPJ President Ozawa Ichiro when the latter headed the small New Frontier party. He won despite the opposition of the LDP, which has continued since his election.

Kada Yukiko

Shiga Prefecture Governor Kada has a doctor’s degree in agriculture and is the fifth woman to serve as the governor of a Japanese prefecture. Still in her first term, she campaigned on a platform of freezing public works projects, including the construction of six dams and a new Shinkansen station. (This stance is often a winner among the Japanese public and just as often earns the enmity of the long-entrenched political interests allied with the construction industry.)

Her political philosophy as governor is that leaders at the local level should transcend political parties and treat the prefecture’s citizens as their party, echoing the same theme presented by Mr. Higashikokubaru in Miyazaki Prefecture. Neither of the two major parties supported her during her election campaign–the DPJ, ironically, because of her opposition to the Shinkansen station. She wound up with the support of the Social Democrats, a small party that contains what is left of the former Socialist Party, and defeated the candidate backed by the LDP, the DPJ, and New Komeito.

Ms. Kada already has succeeded in freezing the construction of the Shinkansen station by refusing to prepare a budget for the related expenditures, which nearly embroiled her in a lawsuit that sought to recover damages.

Sentaku’s membership also includes the nation’s youngest mayor, 35-year-old Kunisada Isato of Sanjo, Niigata.

Joining in late February was Kojima Zenkichi, the mayor of Shizuoka City. Mr. Kojima explained that Japan was in a critical period in the second stage of reform for devolution. He said he wanted to work with the group to increase regional authority now that debate at the national level is stalled, which has created a sense of crisis among local governments. The Diet, said Mr. Kojima, is tied up in the issue of the gasoline tax and the road funds and there is little discussion reform or devolution. Sentaku, he believes, is the means to get the Diet to pay more attention.

To be fair, not every local politician is on board. Itoh Yuichiro, the governor of Kagoshima Prefecture, carped to the press, “I don’t know why (Sentaku) is necessary. It’s the job of the mass media to conduct debate regarding various issues and to create a venue for the exchange of opinions.” (Since Mr. Itoh was speaking to a reporter, it should be no surprise that his interviewer failed to follow up by asking why the mass media has so dismally failed to fulfill this function.)

Diet Liaison Group

When Sentaku was launched in January, Mr. Kitagawa also said he would seek the formation of a group consisting of members of the national Diet to work together to implement the group’s goals for the next lower house election:

We also will call on Diet members of all parties who agree with our activities and aims to form a new federation among themselves. We can provide the MPs with a platform for the debate required.

The formation of that group was announced on 3 March with the participation of 110 members from four parties, much more than the originally anticipated 70. Unlike the main Sentaku group, this is expected to be a temporary body for promoting the group’s aims in the next lower house election, expected to be held later this year.

The point was explicitly made that the Diet liaison group was not created to promote political realignment, which is the defining trend in Japanese politics at the national level and the backdrop to the tactical maneuvers of both parties that are ostensibly related to national policy. Prominent DPJ Diet member Noda Yoshihiko had this to say on his participation: “I am not one of those seeking a political realignment. I want to form a government without the LDP. I am interested in (a system) in which governments are formed alternately by the two parties.”

Kyoto Governor Yamada also explained the need for this liaison group: “The opposition of central government agencies has prevented debate on devolution. This way we can avoid the distorted connection with (the bureaucracy).”

Not everyone is sanguine about the prospects of success for the Diet liaison group. In an editorial, the Nishinippon Shimbun wondered if it would be able to focus on policy-based reform, considering that most Diet members are conducting themselves with an eye on political realignment. The newspaper also wondered whether this group would subvert the goals of Sentaku by serving as the means to accelerate the creation of alliances of politicians of different parties and lead to talks for another grand coalition. Indeed, the newspaper reported that one MP from Kyushu was instructed by his faction leader to attend the inaugural meeting for the specific purpose of confirming who was present.

Regardless of how its relationship with the Diet evolves, Sentaku now counts among its members 144 heads of local government, including 13 of the 47 prefectural governors. They have formed four committees to examine policy alternatives, including one for Diet reform and one for the reform of the bureaucracy and political leadership. The group has without question established a beachhead for itself as a vehicle for people of intelligence and accomplishment throughout the country who have long been dismayed at the inability of national politicians and other leaders to see beyond their immediate interests and recognize that without change Japan is headed toward a dead end. (Indeed, I am aware of no similar group anywhere else in the Western world; certainly no such group with anything approaching the credentials of Sentaku exists in the United States)

In the days of the post-bubble economy, the Asahi Shimbun asked executives of 200 Japanese corporations who from the past 1,000 years of world history, regardless of nationality, would be most useful in overcoming Japan’s financial crisis. The winner of the poll? Sakamoto Ryoma, the man who midwifed the birth of the modern Japanese state.

Most of the public shares Sakamoto’s desire to have the country choose a thorough cleaning, once and for all. The enthusiasm for Sentaku evinced by local politicians of different political backgrounds shows that the spirit for bottom-up reform is still alive and well.

This time, they might finish the job that Sakamoto Ryoma started.

Add to: Facebook | Digg | | Stumbleupon | Reddit | Blinklist | Twitter | Technorati | Yahoo Buzz | Newsvine

Posted in Government, History, Politics | Tagged: , , | 10 Comments »

The Imperial warehouses

Posted by ampontan on Wednesday, March 5, 2008

THE SMITHSONIAN in Washington D.C. is sometimes referred to as America’s attic. While it is primarily the repository for items of historical value, it is also the storage place for objects that are more curiosity than treasure and part of the country’s cultural legacy only in the aggregate.

There is a group of buildings in Japan that serve a similar function, though they are not open to the public and not widely known. That’s the Gyofu, a cluster of wooden warehouses on the southern end of the Fukiage Gardens in the Imperial Palace.

They were originally used to store the spoils of war. Each of the five buildings in the group has a name that ends with the suffix –fu. In each of the five was kept the booty taken from overseas in military campaigns.

Specifically, the Shintenfu was the repository for items from the Japan-China war, the Kaienfu was for items from the North China Incident (the start of the second war with China), the Kenanfu stored the items from the Japan-Russia war, the Junmeifu held the spoils from the Siberian Intervention (1918-1925), and the Kenchufu was the warehouse for the plunder and souvenirs from the Manchurian and Shanghai incidents.

The Korosei Rock, a symbol of the relationship between T’ang Dynasty China and Bohai (a kingdom that existed in Northern China and the Korean Peninsula from 698-926), was taken from China to Japan during the Japan-Russia War and is still standing in the front garden of the Kenanfu (the building shown in the photo). All the other items from overseas were returned to their countries of origin after the war.

The buildings of the Gyofu still serve as warehouses, however; they are used for the storage of the possessions of the current emperor, some of the art donated to the country by the Imperial Household after the death of the Showa Emperor, and the implements used for palace ceremonies.

According to those who have gotten a glimpse of the interior of these buildings, they just have an open space with no dividing walls or shelving. All the stored items are placed seemingly at random inside.

Though the buildings are old, they were solidly built and are still in good shape. The people responsible for their design and construction were part of the Takumiryo, a group of builders and craftsmen in the former Imperial Household Ministry. That group was also involved with the construction of other parts of the Imperial Palace and the Tokyo National Museum.

The Gyofu are located in a part of the palace grounds where entry is highly restricted, so they are almost never seen by anyone without a reason for being there. But there is one exception: the Suwa teahouse in the East Gardens, a popular site for strollers that is open to the public. The building is actually the Kaienfu, which was moved to this location and rebuilt. It was decided to move it in 1968 when the plans for the East Garden were formulated because its distinctively Japanese appearance was thought to blend in well with the surrounding area.

It’s a shame the rest aren’t available for viewing by the public, but they are just storehouses, so they wouldn’t be the most appropriate place for public exhibitions. Then again, there’s no reason why the Korosei Rock should still be there. It should have been returned to China long ago.

The Chinese would like to have it back, of course, but to their credit, they seem to be asking for the return in the spirit of bilateral friendship rather than making strident demands. Here’s the Japanese-language explanation of the history of the object and the Chinese viewpoint on the website of the Chinese Embassy in Japan, as written by Xinhua. China sent a team to this country to examine the rock, but the Imperial Household Agency, perhaps the most backward government organization in the country, refused to let them see it. They gave the team photographs instead.

It’s an object of historical and cultural importance from China that belongs in China. Why should it be sitting on a plot of land in Japan that most Japanese aren’t allowed to see? Indeed, returning it would be of great benefit to Japan, if only for the positive publicity it would generate among the Chinese.

Keeping it there does not reflect well on the Japanese government. I suspect the Japanese public would agree–if they knew about it.

Posted in China, History, Imperial family, International relations | 4 Comments »

Turnstiles for a World Heritage site

Posted by ampontan on Tuesday, March 4, 2008

ANYONE WHO’S SEEN PHOTOS promoting tourism in Japan has seen the entrance to the Itsukushima Shinto shrine on the island of Miyajima in Hiroshima Bay. The bright red torii, or shrine gateway, stands in the water of the bay leading to the island.


Built in 1168, the shrine is a UNESCO World Heritage site that attracts roughly three million visitors a year from throughout Japan and around the world. The sheer volume of visitors means the area requires considerable maintenance, and the site itself required a great deal of maintenance to begin with. The shrine’s structural members are subject to water damage, and the pine forest surrounding the shrine has been suffering from blight.

In addition, a September 2004 typhoon destroyed the Sagakubo, a hall at the shrine for the performance of ritual music and dance. Hatsukaichi, the municipality in which the site is located, was liable for 40 million yen (almost US $386,000) of the 790 million yen in repair costs.

That’s a substantial financial burden for a small local government to deal with, so they’ve decided they’re going to get assistance for all those expenditures. The city has decided to charge what it calls an “island admission tax” to pay for the upkeep of the shrine, the cultural treasures, and the surrounding environment. (In fact, it will be technically classified as an “environmental cooperation tax”.)

Levying this tax was one of the campaign pledges of Hatsukaichi Mayor Shinno Katsuhiro. Now that he’s been elected, he’s going to be keeping his campaign promise. (Isn’t it just like a politician to keep the promises that cost money!)

Mayor Shinno is going to make the case for the tax to City Council this month, though the council’s decision is a foregone conclusion. A project team will be established in April to create a framework proposal for the amount of the tax and who exactly will pay. Later in this summer, a committee of experts and island residents will be formed to study the issue in greater detail. Mayor Shinno says he hopes people will understand why the tax is needed because protecting the environment costs a lot of money.

Japan’s Agency for Cultural Affairs agrees. They say protection of the surrounding area is absolutely necessary because it comprises a single entity with the shrine. The agency also notes that one of the conditions of registration as a World Heritage site is the establishment of measures for the protection of the entire area. Incidentally, this will be the first charge to be levied for the protection of a World Heritage site in Japan.

Izena in Okinawa Prefecture levied a similar tax in 2005, and it costs 100 yen, slightly less than a U.S. dollar, for entry to the island.

Here’s the English-language website for Miyajima, and here’s the UNESCO page for the Itsukushima shrine, both of which are worth your time. This YouTube video offers a lot of different views in 1:49, including shots taken at high tide and at low tide.

Posted in Shrines and Temples, Traditions | Leave a Comment »